When it comes to the Middle East, no news is good news, at least for us. We generally don’t want to hear about this conflict or that.
Because any significant violence or upheaval in that region inevitably sets off WWIII scenarios in our minds, leading to more frequent end-of-days discussions, which are hard to stomach for very long. So it’s much easier to flip a news channel away from angry Arabs than to contemplate all the complexities that anger entails.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen many images from Egypt, the country we didn’t have to think about for three decades, except when King Tut was featured on the History Channel. Then, we saw all these people in the streets. We saw rocks thrown, heard the shouting, the anger.
This is an interesting conundrum for us. If you support freedom and democracy, you can’t really oppose a nation of people that has felt oppressed finally rising up against its oppressor. The fact that Western journalists who tried to document the revolution were beaten by Mubarak supporters who wanted to hide the protests should confirm to us what kind of animal that regime was — a jaw-snapping 30-year hyena that bites those not in the pack.
Nevertheless, there was great ambivalence in America toward the Egyptian revolution. Can you imagine if Iraqis toppled Saddam on their own in February 2003? We would have celebrated with real enthusiasm. We could have avoided a war. We could have felt democracy was on the march in the Middle East, just as the Bush Administration hoped.
But any enthusiasm toward the Egyptian revolution and the wave of revolt in the region is muted, because we recognize Middle Eastern democracy is not necessarily “pro Western” democracy. If the people prefer fundamentalist Islamic governments that are hostile to us, then their democracy goes against our financial and national security interests.
Instead, we are served much better — at least at the gas pumps — by Middle Eastern strongmen who seek great wealth through oil arrangements with us. They bring stability to global oil markets. Even Saddam once represented this to us. If you could put the morals aside — which you can’t — this makes sense in terms of practical self interest.
Think of the real oil big dawg in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, one of our greatest allies in the region. There’s certainly no democracy there, where a ruling family controls oil assets and lives in splendor very few humans have ever known. Meanwhile, most of their population lives in real poverty and has to fear the possibility of public beheading in “Chop Chop Square” in Riyadh for a variety of crimes, including “renouncing Islam” and “witchcraft.”
If the Saudi government improved education, improved living conditions, took its foot off the neck of its people, then many would stand up and look around and want more. The Saudi leaders know this. So, they have an incentive to keep people in dire straits, to keep people in fear. That said, who will be surprised when that royal family of unimaginable opulence faces a rage from within? That day will come. And we will feel panicked, realizing that we should have moved more quickly on oil independence.
We know this bargain we have with the Saudis is shaky, but it’s convenient and lucrative. We prosper from a Saudi political system that is oppressive toward a lot of people. So, is attention to the grievances of the Saudi people about oil arrangements a “blame America” kind of justification for 9/11? Absolutely not. Nothing ever justifies mass murder. But 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia. And we don’t do ourselves any good by being blind to global politics and how we are vulnerable. Breaking that handholding with the Saudi royal family is vital to our long-term security interests.
Perhaps a Saudi revolution is not going to happen. But it seems we are in an age where old power arrangements are in jeopardy. We saw that in Iran, where educated youth led a movement against Ahmadinejad in 2009. The revolution-to-be was snuffed out with strong-arm tactics. But you can certainly expect it to rise up again there.
Of course, the most-recent wave of revolt was not triggered in Egypt, but in Tunisia, where Mohamed Bouazizis, a vegetable seller, “set himself on fire after his cart was confiscated and a headstrong policewoman slapped him across the face in broad daylight,” according to Newsweek. The vegetable seller’s cart became a powerful symbol of oppression in the Arab world and a focal point of revolutionists.
It’s hard to know where the current revolt will end — and what will remain.
All we know is this: There’s always something to fear when it comes to Middle Eastern politics and passions. The news from the region is so rarely heartwarming.
Still, if we’re people who value the principles of freedom and self determination, then we must also realize that a revolution against an oppressor is something to applaud. Our own self interests, our own fears, can’t outweigh our desire to see people stand up for themselves and fight for decency in their own land. It’s a principle that transcends nationality.
We just have to hope that Egyptians take the streets again when forces of corruption or militant religious influence sway power away from those simply seeking a decent life.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
I think a better and more accurate comparison to the protest situation you are observing(and perhaps what you are alluding to) in many of the northern states such as Wisconsin and Ohio would be that that has taken place in Greece.